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MRG concerned about the attack and relocation of a mosque in Sri Lanka, calls on Sri Lankan government to take immediate action to protect religious freedoms

26 April 2012

Minority Rights Group International said on Tuesday that it was deeply concerned about the attack on a mosque by Buddhist mobs in Dambulla, in north Central Sri Lanka, and the subsequent decision by the country’s government to relocate the mosque.

On Friday 20 April, 2012, a group of up to 2000 Sinhala Buddhists, including members of the clergy, protested outside and attacked the mosque in Dambulla. The protesters, carrying Buddhist flags, shouted slogans and demonstrated outside the mosque, disrupting traditional Friday afternoon prayers.

Despite the police presence the protestors subsequently broke into the premises of the mosque and caused some damage to property, including a cupboard that houses copies of Islamic religious texts such as the Quran, MRG says.

According to MRG, a letter dated 22 April, 2012, from the office of the Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, orders the removal of the mosque from this area on the grounds that it is a Buddhist religious area. The letter asks for the mosque to be relocated to another area.

‘The Government of Sri Lanka should be protecting the right to religious freedom of all its people, including Muslims, rather than giving in to mob rule,’ Mark Lattimer, Executive Director of MRG says.

MRG says the attack on the mosque and proposed relocation of it on the grounds that the area is sacred to the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community is in clear violation of international laws on minority rights and religious freedoms.

According to MRG research, the mosque was built in 1963; Buddhists in the area claim that the mosque was built on temple land, but Muslims say it was build on the location of a shrine of a Muslim religious leader, which has existed for over 100 years.

The letter from the Prime Minister’s office says that the decision was taken in consultation with Muslim political leaders. But Muslim leaders, quoted in the media, denied that they were consulted on the issue.

After enquiring with local partners, MRG learnt that neither Muslim religious leaders nor the local community have been consulted. There are reports of attempts to also relocate a Hindu shrine from this same area.

MRG has for some time now warned that minority Tamils, Muslims and Christians are increasingly becoming targets of rising religious intolerance by some Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups. This incident has not occurred in isolation. The following are a few examples from a list of incidents of recent attacks on places of religious worship highlighted in a statement by a group of concerned Sri Lankan citizens and civil society groups.

– In 2011, an Islamic sufi shrine was destroyed by a mob of people, including Buddhist monks, in the north central town of Anuradhapura.
– In Trincomalee, in Illangaithurai Muhathuwaram – renamed Lanka Patuna by the Sri Lankan government – a Hindu Shivan shrine was removed and a Buddhist statue was built in its place.
– In the southern town of Kalutara, in 2011, a group of people, including Buddhist monks, attacked the four Square Gospel Church.
– In 2012, the Assembly of God church was attacked in Ambalangoda, which is also in southern Sri Lanka.

‘Sri Lanka has recently come under a lot of international criticism for its human rights record and treatment of minorities. As the recent UN Human Rights Council resolution and Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report recognise, the country is at a critical stage of reconciliation three years after the end of the armed conflict,’ Lattimer says.

‘The government of Sri Lanka should take firm action to protect and promote the rights of all communities, not just that of the majority community. This is critical if there is to be proper reconciliation and long-term peace in the country.’

MRG calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to conduct a full, independent and impartial investigation into the attack on the mosque, immediately revoke the order to relocate the mosque, and facilitate discussions with Muslim and Buddhist political and religious leaders aimed at finding an amicable solution that is acceptable to both communities.